As classes began this year, male students at Dillard University, a historically black institution, were asked to don suits and ties. Students leading the effort believe that through this custom, students will better represent the school and themselves upon graduation.
It is important to place this in the context of “respectability politics” – attempts by marginalized groups to demonstrate their acceptance of mainstream values rather than to challenge the mainstream for failing to accept difference.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provide an interesting vantage point on respectability politics. As a researcher of HBCUs, I believe it is unfair to demand that the marginalized adhere to or show respect for mainstream values that perpetuate inequality. Yet the history of black colleges challenges me to consider the role of respectability politics in the overall fight for racial justice and equality.
History of ‘respectability’
Respectability politics is not new.
From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Black Lives Matter, respectability politics is an ever-present theme within movements for black progress and liberation.
Though Rosa Parks’ defiant stance against racial segregation is credited with sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she wasn’t the first black woman to have refused her seat to a white passenger in that town.
Nine months prior, Claudette Colvin had done the same thing. However, movement leaders did not feel Colvin, an unmarried, pregnant teenager, represented the “cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” indicative of respectability.
Even today, when Black Lives Matter protesters are criticized for disrupting political events, the main concern is often respectability. The view is people will be more inclined to listen to the group’s demands if they are presented in a manner that demonstrates respect – nice clothes and no profanity.
Emphasis on dress at HBCUs
Now let’s look at the terrain in which the majority of HBCUs began between 1866 and 1898.
Educating the formerly enslaved and their descendants was a truly radical idea following the Civil War.
Despite this, respectability politics were woven throughout HBCU missions and daily practices. Black leaders argued that the pursuit of education was a way to rehabilitate the image of the black community. Through education, service and moral living, “the race” could uplift itself to the position of whites.
Reminiscent of recent events at Dillard, emphasis on dress and appearance was a common practice at HBCUs through the middle of the 20th century. Students were expected to look the part – clean, professional – respectable.
For example, the United Negro College Fund drew from respectability politics as it raised money for private black colleges in the 1940s and 1950s. The images and words used to raise money for these schools were carefully selected.
From the portraits of neatly dressed coeds styled to look “all-American” to their claims that black college graduates adhered to the American values of thrift, service and upholding one’s responsibility, the United Negro College Fund’s efforts were a blueprint for respectability politics.
Ironically, though, the very same positioning that showed black colleges as bastions of respectability also enabled these schools to serve as spaces that inculcated radicalism among their students.
White donors in particular responded favorably to these images of respectability. And the money raised enabled HBCUs to become laboratories for civil rights.
It is from such schools that well-known leaders of the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Diane Nash emerged. It is also from within HBCUs, public and private, that students developed innovative and distinctly radical approaches emphasizing direct confrontation to fighting for racial equality, such as the sit-in.
Radical political thought and respectability
We should not underestimate the ability for radical political perspectives to emerge even from within contexts that promote respectability.
After all, even as Malcolm X called for justice by any means necessary, he did so while steeped in a religious tradition that heavily policed the dress, manners and sexuality of its members.
Calls for respectability have always existed. Some of these calls have emanated from within the black community. But rest assured, these calls have never prevented radical political thought from prevailing or succeeding within the black community, reminding us once again that we should be less concerned with how the messenger dresses and more concerned with the message itself.